Refusing to be pessimistic

Issue: 126

Dan Swain

Alain Badiou, Pocket Pantheon: Figures of Postwar Philosophy (Verso 2009), £9.99

In the preface to this new collection, the French philosopher Alain Badiou offers a withering assessment of the state of contemporary philosophy. He attacks those modern philosophers content to echo and clarify the ruling ideas of society and “wear themselves out trying to infect us with little articles, debates, blazing headlines (“The Ethics of Stock Options: Philosophers Speak Out at Last”) and boisterous roundtable discussions (“Philosophers: the G-String or the Veil?)” When confronted with the sight of Bérnard-Henri Lévy, supposedly France’s foremost thinker, speaking at the NATO summit or joining the clamour to ban the burqa, it is easy to see what he means.

Badiou, by contrast, is a thinker who has remained committed to radical challenges to the ruling class, and to the idea of revolution. He has been vocal on many of the most important political issues in France. He opposed the banning of the hijab in schools, spoke out in defence of the young people who rioted against police violence in the suburbs of Paris, and has campaigned with migrant workers. It is in part because of this commitment to radical politics that his work is now coming to far greater prominence. In 2007 he wrote a polemical response to the election of Nicolas Sarkozy, which was both a withering attack on Sarkozy and his politics, and a call to arms for an alternative, a refusal to be pessimistic. This was a surprise bestseller in France and cemented Badiou as someone who those serious about changing the world ought to engage with.

Badiou, like so many others, was greatly influenced by the events of May 1968 in Paris. Unlike many of his contemporaries he remains politically active, and is critical of those who have become pessimistic since. In the 1960s Badiou became a Maoist. Whilst those in the International Socialists argued in 1968 that the key to transforming society was the working class, many took other conclusions. Badiou looked to the peasant movements that had formed the basis of Mao’s revolution in China,. Thus instead of the working class the solution lay in peasant and guerrilla struggles. In philosophical writings of the 1970s and 1980s, Badiou distinguishes sharply between the “proletariat”, and the actually existing working class. The proletariat, the revolutionary subject, is more closely identified in his earlier writings with the revolutionary party itself. This inevitably leads to a tendency towards what Trotsky called substitutionism, in which the party is seen as a group capable of delivering socialism for the workers without their active participation. This background still influences his work, so the pieces in this book continuously return to the need to re-theorise what he calls the political subject, ie the group capable of transforming society. This search for a new political subject is a common theme among those who have lost confidence in the working class themselves to deliver change.

Badiou has a background in mathematics, which has allowed him to construct a unique system of philosophy which is supposed to operate on a number of levels, being as relevant to mathematics as it is to politics. This system is focused on an account of what he calls “events”. These are important moments that represent radical breaks with the past. Events occur when the inconsistencies with the way in which reality is presented to us become too great. In a particular moment the way in which we are forced to see the world becomes impossible. The inconsistencies in a situation become so great that some people can no longer see it in the old way. In this situation new ways of seeing the world develop, whether in art, science or politics.

At the political level they include the French Revolution of 1789 and the Russian Revolution of 1917. So Badiou takes seriously these moments in which all of the previously accepted structures of society break down, where, as Marx puts it, all that is solid melts into air. This is in part a reaction to thinkers who have focused on the structures of society, and ended with problems explaining how these radical changes with the past happen. While they offered an account of how social forms maintain and reproduce themselves, they have problems explaining what happens when those forms break down. Badiou instead starts from the fact that these changes do happen, and develops a philosophical system based on them.

This focus on events is a great strength. Despite the “end of history” rhetoric of so many people, the past decades have been full of these moments, from the upheavals which brought about the collapse of Stalinism in Eastern Europe to the unexpected scale and size of the recent protests in Iran. These events necessarily represented sharp breaks with the past, going far beyond what had previously been the norm. Any political philosophy that does not take them seriously has a major weakness. However, there are some serious problems with Badiou’s approach. Events for Badiou can often seem to come from nowhere.

Events “exceed” their situation, going beyond way beyond the ordinary. But if this is so, how can they be explained? It is no coincidence that Badiou engages in a long discussion of St Paul, since his events often seem like moments of divine grace, or miracles. But if the comparison with miracles is at all serious then this is a real problem. Events, such as revolutions, are connected to what has come before. The October Revolution can be understood only by reference to Russia’s involvement in the First World War, the development of the soviets and the role of the Bolsheviks, among many other factors. Badiou presents his events in a way that appears divorced from these features. As the late Daniel Bensaïd put it, “By refusing to venture into the dense thickets of real history, into the social and historical determination of events, Badiou’s notion of the political tips over into a wholly imaginary dimension: this is politics made tantamount to an act of levitation, reduced to a series of unconditioned events and “sequences” whose exhaustion or end remain forever mysterious”.1

Badiou also faces a problem of how to identify a “true event”. Not all moments which represent radical breaks from the past are progressive. How do we distinguish between events which are worthy of supporting and those which are not, or rather between genuine “events”, in Badiou’s sense, and non-events. To take a concrete example, the mass protests in Iran last year created a debate among the left. Should we support the protests? This was a sincere debate, based on important questions of who was involved in the protests, whether they would advance the interests of the Iranian working class, and so on. It was right to support the protests, but there was very real and sincere disagreement. Badiou’s account should be able to offer us some means of deciding whether these protests were a true “event” or not. What he offers, however, are abstract appeals to universality and equality. It is hard to see how these can begin to answer the difficult strategic questions posed by revolutionary events.

None of these philosophical problems prevent Badiou from being an important political figure in French public life. Unfortunately alongside his opposition to Islamophobia and police violence there is an ultra-left hostility to the trade unions, and a strange attitude to the state. He appears to see the state as a sort of necessary evil, which must be kept at arm’s length. Thus his political work is focused among those most distant from the state. His ideas appear as a strange combination of pessimism about the potential of existing organisations, and optimism about waiting for a true event.

1: Bensaïd, Daniel, 2004, “Alain Badiou and the Miracle of the Event”,